Image: Matthew McAuley
Image: Matthew McAuley

ĀteaMay 10, 2020

Empire and rebellion: What Taika Waititi directing Star Wars means for Māori

Image: Matthew McAuley
Image: Matthew McAuley

The appeal of Star Wars is universal, but the central themes have special resonance for indigenous people – which is why having a uniquely Māori spirit at the helm is so exciting.

May the 4th was with us this week as Disney announced that New Zealand film-maker and Waihau Bay rebel leader Taika Waititi would direct and co-write an upcoming Star Wars film. Though little is known about the content or shape of the future film, it’s a good time to reflect on what it means to have a Māori director influence the Star Wars universe, and the magic touch that Taika Waititi can bring.

Exploring an indigenous space

Like every culture where electricity and two hours of free time are available, many Māori people love Star Wars. There are whānau fabricating fibreglass suits of custom-fit scout trooper armour, incorporating images into fine art, and chasing their sibling down the driveway with a lightsaber. There are Māori musicians like Che Fu who put Star Wars imagery on their album cover, model-makers gluing together waka tuarangi, and if I turn my head from my desk I can see an array of mint condition Tomy Takara Metal Collection die-cast scale figures. The world of Star Wars is so beloved by us that author and newscaster Scotty Morrison has developed the phrase “Tuoru Hawaiki” as an indigenised version of “May the Force be with you”.

While the appeal of Star Wars is pretty much universal, certain elements leap out at Māori audiences and take hold. The most apparent of these is the casting for the Prequel Trilogy, and Attack of the Clones in particular, where Temuera Morrison plays the role of bounty hunter Jango Fett. It’s a role with significant screen time that Tem plays with an undoctored accent, and a performance impactful enough to carry his voice and image across a range of action figures and the lead role in a licensed video game. In the lore of the Star Wars universe, Jango Fett is the ideal warrior and becomes the genetic blueprint for the clone army of the films, so from Episode II onwards every single trooper is in fact an agent of Te Arawa.

On-screen representation of Māori talent is welcome and meaningful in its own right, and was furthered by the casting of both Rena Owen and Keisha Castle-Hughes in supporting roles for the prequel films. But beyond the images and the action of the Star Wars films a deeper thematic relationship calls to Māori, one with a historic and localised resonance: empire and rebellion. The arrival of Imperial Forces bearing unstoppable firepower and an insatiable thirst for resources and dominance isn’t an abstracted experience for many peoples of our planet, Māori included. The idea that once sovereign lands are occupied and controlled by the forces of a remote and wealthy empire, and that this arrangement is an undesirable one, rings out in the everyday lives of the indigenous nations of America, Kanaka Māoli, the Aboriginal peoples of occupied Australia, and many others. If Star Wars is a global phenomenon, then the global indigenous response to Star Wars is a phenomenon also.

Navigating a multicultural galaxy

For every culture that Star Wars touches, those cultures respond in kind with localised interpretations, imaginings and translations. It’s a fluid and ongoing exchange but not necessarily a well-balanced one, and the sheen can wear off with scrutiny. Star Wars™ is an American property, created and once owned by George Lucas, and now owned and controlled by the Disney Corporation. The storytelling in Star Wars films, however, has always been multicultural. Throughout the original trilogy we see the narrative techniques of Akira Kurosawa, the postmodern melange of Sergio Leone, we can hear modified Haitian languages, see Hopi motif in costume designs, and the entire concept of The Force rests on the largely Chinese history of chi or qi. But the multicultural secret to the success of the franchise is also a secret source of shame: a desire to show the exotic inevitably leads to an exoticism of the cultures referenced. If we’re looking for examples of diversity in casting and performance, we might look to the shuck-and-jiving Jar-Jar Binks, then quickly look away again. So the cut-and-paste approach to culture clearly has its issues, but there are motions towards a resolved approach if we look at the newest Star Wars product streaming on Disney+, The Mandalorian.

As an eight-episode series, The Mandalorian employed a roster of directors noticeably different from the directors of the feature films. Let’s have a read of their names and see if anything stands out: Dave Filoni, Rick Famuyiwa, Deborah Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi. There’s a diversity within that group that signals a willingness to breakaway from a set style and perhaps a set of unconscious biases, and reception for The Mandalorian confirms that a different approach to storytelling can lead to success. (It has also just been announced that Temuera Morrison will be joining the series to play Boba Fett, the son of the character he played in Episode II.) This isn’t to say that a very successful TV show or a number of well-received movies can reverse the power imbalances of Hollywood and its history of biases, but it does gesture towards a future where stories and storytellers from different backgrounds can meet with recognition from a massive global audience.

Keeping it (K)iwi on the global stage

We’re at a point now where no one can doubt Taika Waititi’s status as a world-class film-maker. Sixteen years on from his short film Two cars, One Night, he has three Oscar nominations to his name, including a win for the adapted screenplay of Jojo Rabbit, and his first Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok has grossed US$854-million to date. If there’s one question that hangs over Waititi’s career at this point it’s whether he can maintain a personal imprint on the ever-increasing size of his work and, for the purpose of our own concerns, whether he can continue to communicate a Māori mode of storytelling.

Earlier in the week, Sam Brooks pointed out that directors in the Star Wars franchise have struggled to leave a personal imprint on their films, or even complete them, and notes that the biggest challenge for Waititi will be injecting personality and style into his own entry. It’s a valid concern, and the best indication we have is his work on the final episode of The Mandalorian. Even within a range of unique directorial voices, Waititi distinguishes himself with a penchant for humour and pathos, running the gamut from the situational humour of two stormtroopers on a lunch break to the touching self-sacrifice of a noble android (played by himself). As a writer and a director, he’s incapable of leaving his voice unheard: it resonates through performance and pacing and dialogue and structure. If this was clear in the highly idiosyncratic Thor movie, it’s even clearer in Jojo Rabbit, which is a story that should be almost impossible to tell let alone be told while dressed as a German dictator. That Waititi was able to secure an Oscar win for such difficult material is the strongest possible indication that the film industry at large is willing to accept that voice.

Waititi’s personal style and its relationship to Māori culture and lived experience are inseparable. In the same way that there is no American Godard and no Australian Herzog, there is no other version of Taika Waititi – his culture is imprinted in his art practice. The exercise of this cultural style can be seen in the production of Thor: Ragnarok, where a spirit of kaupapa Māori led from the ground of the production upwards, including a recognition of the tangata whenua Yugambeh mob indigenous to the Gold Coast shooting locations. Of all the possibilities for a film that is yet to be written, it’s the prospect of this spirit that should buoy us the most. It’s a mark of distinction in a successful career, on a massive stage, that inspires indigenous people wherever the scope of Star Wars can reach.

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